Sam Shepard doesn't have a lot to say about "The Late
Henry Moss," his play that premieres this week,
presented by the Magic Theatre at Theatre on the Square.
But with his respected reputation as a playwright - and
a heavyweight cast including Sean Penn, Nick Nolte,
Woody Harrelson and Cheech Marin - he doesn't have to.
Shy, taciturn and famously resistant to anything that
carries the whiff of celebrity, Shepard is hardly an
interviewer's dream. During a conversation at the Magic
Theatre's performing space at Fort Mason, the
Pulitzer-winning playwright munches on a sandwich and
looks down, avoiding eye contact, when a question is
"It's basically messing around with the same things I've
always been fooling with over the years," he allows
during a rehearsal break. "Brothers and fathers and all
that stuff. I don't want to get too specific about it."
He's not rude, just remote. It's always been that way
with Shepard, a man so gifted, so charismatic and so
private that he's inadvertently created a mystique
around himself - a mystique that perpetuates the public
fascination that he shuns.
The mystique is fueled by his rock-star looks. As a
young man, Shepard was flat-out beautiful. As he aged
and grew into the lean, weathered figure that he is now
- he turns 57 today - Shepard took on an iconic quality,
like one of the lonely, rough-hewn characters in his
Shepard doesn't answer personal questions... And he's predictably dodgy on the subject
of his play: "I don't want to give a lot of it away, to
tell you the truth," he says.
This much, one gathers, is true: "The Late Henry Moss"
is a family drama, set in the New Mexico desert or, more
accurately, in the mythical American West that is
Shepard's spiritual terrain. There is an old man played
by James Gammon, the gravel-voiced character actor who
appeared in the 1996 Broadway revival of Shepard's
"Buried Child" and plays Don Johnson's crusty dad on
There are his two estranged sons, Ray and Earl, played
by Penn and Nolte, who return to the father's house and
confront their conflicted and violent past; a gabby
cabdriver, played by Harrelson, who carries an important
piece of information; a neighbor, played by Marin, who's
a friend of the old man's; and the old man's young
girlfriend (Sheila Tousey).
Asked how the play differs from his earlier work,
Shepard answers, simply, "It specifically deals with
death. I've never directly dealt with that. The other
(plays) have that peripherally, but this is the
centerpiece of it."
Beyond that, Shepard is mum. According to Magic Theatre
artistic director Larry Eilenberg, the playwright called
him a year ago to propose a "Henry Moss" premiere.
"It's my understanding that he had been working toward
this play 10 years ago, and then it became active
again," Eilenberg says. "What he presented was an
unfinished script and an idea of doing it here. Even
then he had some strong casting ideas -- and some of
them are in this cast."
When Eilenberg read the finished work, he says, "I was
hugely enthused. I think it's an important work, and a
deeply American work. This is one of our great
playwrights working at his best."
Shepard and the Magic have a long history, starting in
the 1970-71 season when the theater, located at that
time in Berkeley, produced Shepard's "La Turista." The
Magic also premiered "Buried Child" in 1978, which won a
Pulitzer the next year; "True West," with Peter Coyote
and Jim Haynie, in 1980; and "Fool for Love," with Ed
Harris and Kathy Baker, in 1983. Not counting "Henry
Moss," 15 Shepard productions have been mounted at the
Magic, most recently "Eyes for Consuela" in February
In 1998, the theater renamed one of its stages the Sam
Shepard Theatre and celebrated the occasion with a
four-day marathon of plays dubbed Samfest.
That's a rich, sustained relationship, and yet "Henry
Moss" marks the first time Shepard has directed a play
here since "Fool for Love." He says the decision had
nothing to do with the poor reviews that his previous
two plays, "Simpatico" and "Eyes for Consuela," received
in New York, or the chance to work in San Francisco,
where the scrutiny is presumably less intense. As it
happens, geographical distance hasn't protected "Henry
Moss" from the eyes of the world: The New York Times,
Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Associated Press and
Newsday will all be covering the play's opening.
"A lot of it had to do with convenience," Shepard says,
"because Sean was pretty much stationed here and he
didn't really want to leave the area. And then, I
thought it would be great to return here after so many
After 37 years of writing plays, Shepard says he enjoys
it as much as ever. Theater is a touchstone for him, an
antidote to the artificiality of popular culture and the
glib distractions of the technological world. "I don't
expect it to be a cure," he says, "but theater is a way
in which human beings face each other directly. That's
what it's all about."
In a theater, he says, audience members "don't have a
remote control. There's no screen, nothing standing
between, no filtering. It's right there in front of you.
And I think that's the real power of theater, that it
reconnects people with people."
In a 1996 interview, Shepard lamented the gradual
erosion of human connection through technology.
"Betrayal is in my bones, somehow," he said. "It's
something that has not only affected me personally, but
is in the whole fabric of the culture. . . . We don't
seem to be able to face what has actually become of us."
He listens to that quote as it's read back to him and
nods. "I find it even truer now," he says. "I think the
betrayal becomes more and more outrageous as we go on,
particularly with the electronic revolution. We prefer
the cellular world and all the tricks that electronics
can do to human beings. We don't want to deal with flesh
and blood. . . . It's so extreme that we don't even
realize it's a betrayal."
Shepard says he finds solace in making theater, in
listening to music and in reading. He finds it in the
life he's created with Lange on their 400-acre horse and
cattle ranch. "I think the country helps a great deal,"
he says. "I'm involved with livestock, and I like having
space around, a lot of space."
"I guess I'm fairly reclusive," he says when asked about
his reputation as a man apart. "I think it's important
to maintain. Nothing is private anymore. Everything is
accessible. The Internet and all that s--. It just makes
me a little bit crazy."
One has to wonder why, if Shepard dislikes the life of
the famous person so much - and feels "diminished," as
he once said, by having a public image - he continues to
make movies. He became a movie star with Terrence
Malick's "Days of Heaven" in 1978, and he's averaged one
film per year ever since.
"I'm subsidizing my playwriting," he says. "You don't
make a whole lot of money writing plays. From the get-go
I was terrified of becoming a movie star, to tell you
the truth. Because I considered myself a playwright, and
I still do. And I was afraid in a way that if I went too
far with that, that I would no longer be taken seriously
as a writer."
Shepard's fears didn't come true, and his position as
one of the country's premier playwrights was only
solidified with the Broadway revivals of "Buried Child"
and "True West." It's an amazingly long and fertile
writing career, not without its rough patches, that
seems undiminished by Shepard's movie stardom or the
nagging considerations of celebrity.
As the interview draws to a close and Shepard gets up to
return to his rehearsal -- to another round with his
actors and the unseen demons that populate "The Late
Henry Moss" -- he seems relieved. "Sorry to be so
reticent in certain areas," he says.